Linley Hamilton: Right On The Wavelength

Ian Patterson By

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With the impetus from the Irish Youth Jazz Orchestra Hamilton moved onto to various small ensembles and began putting his own bands together. It's been a long road for Hamilton to get to where he is today: "I've worked hard at it along the way," he says, "and only really now am I starting to like the sound I'm making and starting to have confidence that I know exactly the musical approach I want to take with a song. I'm starting to think that whenever people hear me they think, oh yeah, that's Linley Hamilton; I'm only starting to think that way myself"

Jazz has come a long way in Northern Ireland in the thirty years since Hamilton first started out, though trad jazz still has its adherents: "A lot of the older guys have passed away, unfortunately, but traditional jazz still exists," says Hamilton. Some of them still play—Billy Bryson, Trevor Foster and banjo player Victor Daley, who's the main man. There's an older audience for it who have grown up with them and followed them for forty or fifty years. The big difference now is that there are so many young players between twenty and fifty who are playing more modern, contemporary jazz. There are people who are real drivers like [drummer] David Lyttle, who's not even thirty yet and has his own record label with twenty five albums on it."

Hamilton talks of "the jazz community" and the mutual support that exists between musicians: "They're very supportive of each other. They work hard to play on and promote each other's records and to go to each other's gigs. They're posting on Facebook and Tweeting and it seems that now you've got a team of people who see jazz as the main thing in their lives and they want to support everybody who's doing it. The music is not funded here so it's a team effort to make it work. These people are generating a force for the greater good and they realize that we're all in this journey together."

Still, there seems to exist a North-South divide to a degree, with relatively few jazz bands making the journey across the now invisible border in either direction. That was understandable in the dark old days of political strife in the North, but in these relatively saner times it's more difficult to understand.

"In the old days there was a lot more money in the South of Ireland for playing jazz so there was a long period when Southern musicians didn't make the trek up and Northern musicians have usually made the trek down," explains Hamilton, who feels that the situation is improving: "In the last two or three years a lot of Southern musicians are making the trek up because there's now greater parity between the incomes to be earned. The traffic is starting to happen. As you know my main band is all based in Dublin now so I guess I'm one of the champions of making that cross-border thing happen."

Hamilton is one of the notable exceptions, regularly making the two hour journey down to Dublin, but it's not always easy to convene his band: "They are such good players they are in demand and sometimes it's hard to say to them that I need five days in September. I'm really reluctant to work with a dep because the music is so intricate and the guys have such a good understanding of each other's roles in the band that it really is a big thing bringing in somebody who's not in the band," Hamilton says. "If I can't everybody together I tend not to go with it."

Hamilton has long been an in-demand musician himself, playing with a wide range of top jazz musicians. Collaborative highlights have been many but the first name that springs to Hamilton's mind is one that might be all that familiar to many people outside UK jazz circles: "One of my ambitions was met earlier in the year when I played with my favorite pianist, a guy called Dave Newton," says Hamilton. "It was an emotional experience because there's something about the way he makes music come to life. He's probably the most beautiful musician I've ever worked with."

Another musician who was on that gig with Newton was saxophonist Alan Barnes: "He's a real leader and an evangelist for so much of what's good in jazz," says Hamilton. "He gets in his car and drives 500 miles to do a gig and he does gigs and workshops all over the UK and Ireland. Alan Barnes should get an MBE. He does more for jazz in the UK than anybody I've ever met. It was such an honor to work with those two guys. I so want to collaborate with them again."

Then there's the Celtic soul-man Van Morrison, still going strong after fifty years in the business: "I've had a few opportunities to play with him and they've always been wonderful," Hamilton enthuses. "He loves the music and the players. He's very respectful of the players but he has strong ideas of how he wants his music to sound and everybody who plays with it. It would be silly of me not to admit that he's my all-time musical hero. He's my favorite song-writer so every time I play with him it's inspiring. If you think about his output and his longevity—he's the greatest. I played a wedding last night at Ballymac in West Belfast and kids aged fifteen and sixteen were singing the words of some of Van Morrison's songs; that's all you have to say. He's the greatest of all time."

The main musician that Hamilton plays with in the North is pianist Scott Flanigan, whom Hamilton has played with for the past seven years: "I work with him an awful lot in a whole lot of different ensembles. He's my first call for everything," says Hamilton. "He understands my music. He's technically and harmonically extremely proficient. I don't have to say anything to him in advance of playing a piece. He's got an overview of how the gig should go. He's my right-hand man."

Flanigan and Hamilton play together in a trio with blues guitarist Ronnie Greer—a close friend of Hamilton: "We've got something which we believe is very unique," says Hamilton. "It's a thrill for Scott and I to play with Ronnie. Ronnie gets so much out of one note. His performances are inspiring. He puts everything into it. He stretches himself to the maximum so you have to play well." Another player that Hamilton singles out is David Howell: "He's a phenomenal tenor saxophonist with a very modern sound. He's got an incredible ear, perfect pitch and a great feel for horn lines."

Of course, in jazz as in any walk of life there exist hierarchies, but in Hamilton's experience there's very little snobbishness in the jazz community: "There's a hierarchy of people on the way up and on the way down and the ones who are at the top I find generally, are very supportive of the ones on the way up or on the way down," Hamilton relates. "They see it as part of the social structure of that dynasty."

Another of Hamilton's major roles is as host of the Linley Hamilton Show—his weekly Friday night jazz program for BBC Radio Ulster. In 2007, when Hamilton pitched his idea to BBC Radio Ulster there was already one long-running jazz show, but Hamilton saw an opportunity and seized it: "Walter Love's jazz show was extremely good but there was maybe a gap in the market for what a lot of the younger players were creating and the influences that they were listening to, which he wasn't able to fill this in during a one-hour show," explains Hamilton. There was a domestic product that I felt needed to be reflected so I approached the BBC about hosting the show seven years ago and it's been running ever since."

Hamilton certainly doesn't take the show for granted: "I owe the BBC a great deal," he admits. It maybe didn't need to have two jazz shows in a small country like Northern Ireland but it does. The BBC champions both the shows and gives me a free rein to play the music I want."

The BBC also encouraged Hamilton to do interviews with jazz musicians and in addition to promoting Irish and Ireland-based jazz musicans whenever he can, Hamilton has also been able to persuade some great international names to appear on his show: "I've had some incredible interviews with people like [trumpeter] Randy Brecker, singer Bobby McFerrin, [saxophonist] Jan Garbarek, trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, bassist/singer Richard Bona and [bassist/guitarist] Walter Becker from Steely Dan—they've all been guests on the show and it's been a real thrill."

Hamilton has a wish list of musicians he'd still like to interview on his show. Trumpeter Freddie Hubbard, who passed away in 2008 was the one that got away: "I deeply regret not having him on," laments Hamilton. "He was my biggest influence as a trumpet player." Then there's Norwegian trumpeter Mathias Eick: "He's very influential on my music and I believe he has transformed the trumpet almost as much as Michael Brecker transformed the saxophone. The way he sculpts the sound and the way he has restructured the role of the trumpet so that it plays as a rhythm section instrument as well as a melodic instrument makes him one of the most important trumpet players in Europe, if not the world."

Hamilton also cites a very different type of trumpeter in Arturo Sandoval: "Check out the video of him playing the American national anthem at the Orange Bowl and have a box of tissues in close supply and a brush and pan handy because whenever your jaw hits the ground you can brush your teeth up. It's the most unbelievable thing you will ever see," says Hamilton.

Surprisingly perhaps, it's neither a trumpeter or even a jazz musician who tops Hamilton's interview wish list: "The most important person to me in my life musically speaking is [Steely Dan vocalist] Donald Fagan." Hamilton admits to being a late covert to Steely Dan, having discovered them only in the past ten years but the particular magic that Fagan and Becker weave has impacted Hamilton greatly: "There's something about the vocal harmonies, the intelligence of the lyrics and one of the things that gob smacks me is the role of the drummer and how they hardly ever break the groove. In the drum parts there isn't even a fill. The song comes first. That's what music is about, isn't it?"

Hamilton uses the platform of his radio show to tirelessly promote jazz throughout Ireland. He promotes Ireland's jazz festivals and club gigs and profiles the musicians who are the lifeblood of the national jazz scene: "Anywhere there's a gig I tell people about it," Hamilton says, "you know, to try and cement the jazz family."
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